Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

Giant Insect Ambassadors for the Rainforest

For our newest video for, I vis­ited an old friend, Norm Ger­shenz of, to dis­cuss some of their pro­grams for rais­ing aware­ness and sav­ing pre­cious habi­tats that are home to strange and beau­ti­ful crea­tures like the giant thorny phas­mid.

Find out more about the Insect Dis­cov­ery Lab and how you can bring it to your Bay Area class­room.

Nature Abhors a Science Comedian

“I am at two with Nature.”  –  Woody Allen

* * *

Unlike Woody, today I am at one with Nature…  the mag­a­zine, any­way.  One page of it.

There’s a short Q&A with me in the cur­rent issue of Nature.  The writer/interviewer is Nick Thomas, who is not only a chem­istry pro­fes­sor but also an impres­sively pro­lific free­lance writer.

The photo was taken at Sci­Foo 2008 by John Gilbey…  although the back­ground has been entirely pho­to­shopped out, leav­ing me look­ing like a cut out for a Monty Python ani­ma­tion.

Still, I’m in Nature.  That’s pretty cool.

Did I say “abhors”?  I meant “adores.”

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 2 – The Hotel

The Sci­Foo expe­ri­ence begins before the first ses­sion – even before we get to the Google­plex (Get thee to the Google­plex!).

There was the Wiki, as pre­vi­ously dis­cussed, for first vir­tual encoun­ters.  Then Sci­Foo week­end arrived.

On Fri­day after­noon, my taller half and I checked into the Wild Palms Hotel in Sun­ny­vale.  Sadly, jeal­ously, Tara would not be join­ing me at the uncon­fer­ence.  As I frol­icked at the vast Google empire, she’d be get­ting to know every square inch of our lit­tle hotel room.  Whereas I’d be inter­act­ing with 200 sci­en­tists and sci­ence and sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers, she’d be inter­fac­ing with a stack of sci­ence and sci­ence fic­tion books.  I’d have Neal Stephen­son; she’d have The Dia­mond Age.  I’d have Ann Druyan; she’d have Shad­ows of For­got­ten Ances­tors.

Shut­tles would begin fer­ry­ing campers to the Google­plex around 5:15pm.  Tara and I went down to the hotel lobby a lit­tle early to join the gath­er­ing crowd.  We rounded a cor­ner and bumped right into Esther and George Dyson, sit­ting exactly as cap­tured here in their nat­u­ral habi­tat by Betsy Devine.  They were very sweet and wished us first-timers a great expe­ri­ence.

Min­utes later, Prab­hat Agar­wal intro­duced him­self.  Prab­hat is a for­mer condensed-matter physi­cist who now works for the Future and Emerg­ing Tech­nolo­gies Unit at the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion.  His job is to iden­tify and sup­port new areas of information-related sci­ence, and he told us about his per­sonal inter­est in how we rec­og­nize some­thing as new.  I’m still con­vinced that we rely mostly on the new-concept smell.

Jim Hardy has a pic from a few min­utes later of Tara and me talk­ing to Brian Cox and his wife Gia Mili­novich.  Tara and Gia are in oppo­si­tion, and I’m nearly totally eclipsed by Brian.  John Gilbey’s left eye makes a spe­cial uncred­ited appear­ance.  [Jim sends along this link to a big­ger ver­sion]

This was the first of sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions I’d have with Brian and Gia.  Brian is a par­ti­cle physi­cist who works on the ATLAS exper­i­ment at the Large Hadron Col­lider at CERN in Geneva.  Gia calls her­self a sci­ence groupie and broad­caster.  She’s worked on some pretty cool stuff like the CERN pod­cast and Walk­ing with Robots and the new X-Files movie.

They are not only a cou­ple but also a cou­ple of the peo­ple I’d see the most through­out the week­end.  We ended up in a lot of the same ses­sions, although I was sorry to miss Brian’s LHC ses­sion.

We talked a bit about the LHC and laughed about the well-publicized fear that it would cre­ate micro-black holes that would destroy the Earth.  Although there is a chance that MBH’s will be cre­ated, it would require that the uni­verse con­tain a few extra unseen dimen­sions, an aspect that is wished for by string the­o­rists and oth­ers but still unproven (at least by us ter­rans in our local 4-dimensional space­time realm).  Also, if cre­ated, the black holes would be so small and likely dis­ap­pear so quickly (due to Hawk­ing Radi­a­tion) that they may be unde­tectable by the LHC’s sen­sors.  A far cry from devour­ing the planet.

For an excel­lent fic­tional treat­ment of a sim­i­lar cat­a­stro­phe on Mars, check out Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning short story, The Hole Man.  Much fun!

A few min­utes before we started board­ing the shut­tles, Steve Goldfin­ger intro­duced him­self to me and Tara.  He lives up in the Marin area, as I recall, and we live in SF.  Steve is co-founder of Global Foot­print Net­work.  We sat together on the ride to the Google­plex, dis­cussing sus­tain­abil­ity (his field) and sci­ence com­edy (mine).

Steve also men­tioned hav­ing been impressed with some sci­ence fic­tion by Kim Stan­ley Robin­son – although we laughed when he acci­den­tally called him “Kim Stan­ley Ander­sen,” which I sug­gested was a mash-up with Hans Chris­tian Ander­sen.

I don’t know which Robin­son work he was talk­ing about but sus­tain­abil­ity was a major theme (which it often is for Robin­son) and it was not the Mars Tril­ogy (per­haps the Three Cal­i­for­nias Tril­ogy or his most recent nov­els Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below).

As we arrived at Google, Steve and I exchanged busi­ness cards.  I had a great time chat­ting with him, but after we left the shut­tle, I only ever saw him in pass­ing per­haps once more.

Tara reads Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye. On the night­stand: Asimov's The God's Them­selves, Sagan & Druyan's Shad­ows of For­got­ten Ances­tors, Farmer's To Your Scat­tered Bod­ies Go, Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. Tara is a vora­cious reader.

Science Foo Camp 2008 on Nature Podcast

While at Sci­ence Foo Camp 2008, I grabbed a few quick inter­views for the Nature pod­cast, which was posted today on  Just a few sound­bites from atten­dees David Bauer, Brian Cox, Chris Patil, and Mar­tin Rees. And a shout out to me.

It’s the lat­est episode so, for now, you can find it here.  When it gets moved to the archive, I’ll link to its per­ma­nent loca­tion.*

Thanks to every­one who took the time to speak to me!

* Update:  Here’s the pod­cast episode (21 August 2008) in mp3.  And also a text tran­scrip­tion.

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 1 – The Wiki & What I Missed

[I’ve made one pre­vi­ous Sci­Foo post, in antic­i­pa­tion (and trep­i­da­tion) of the approach­ing week­end.]

Where to begin? How to cap­ture the essence of such an over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ence? Nature! O’Reilly! The Google­plex! 200 cer­ti­fied sci­ence geniuses! No less than four (4) Nobel Lau­re­ates! And other incom­plete sen­tences!

By design, Sci­ence Foo Camp has no real agenda until we get there and cre­ate it, and even then, it’s com­pletely flex­i­ble. But, about three months in advance, a wiki was estab­lished for every­one to post to with descrip­tions of our­selves and ideas for ses­sions we’d like to see or lead. This was a great oppor­tu­nity to learn a lit­tle bit about our fel­low campers and to be that much more pre­pared by the time we got there, since time would be so pre­cious.

[Note to Lee Smolin: I’m not sure about the rest of the Uni­verse but, at Sci­Foo, the flow of time is very real and very fast.]

If you ever get the chance to attend Sci­Foo, take advan­tage of the wiki. Start early. Most of the campers posted brief bios with their areas of research and inter­ests and links to home­pages, blogs, com­pa­nies, and orga­ni­za­tions.  For the ones that didn’t, there’s Google.  If they’re at Sci­Foo, you won’t have any trou­ble find­ing ’em. Most of them have Wikipedia entries.

My only wish for “improv­ing” the amaz­ing crea­ture that is Sci­Foo would be to lengthen it just a bit. I want more!  Per­haps extend the Fri­day and Sun­day to full days. Give us just a lit­tle extra time to take it all in. There are so many fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, so many intrigu­ing ses­sions.  There’s no way to meet every­one or attend every ses­sion you’d like. With as many as four­teen (14!) simul­ta­ne­ous ses­sions in each hour time slot, no mat­ter how much you expe­ri­ence, there’s still a sense that you missed out on a lot of cool stuff.

Of course, even if it were a week long, I’m sure I’d feel the same.

Betsy Devine\'s morning session

For the first ses­sion of the week­end, I missed Carl Diet­rich’s “Energy for Long Dis­tance Trans­porta­tion” because I wanted to catch Betsy Devine’s “5-minute Talks by Smart Peo­ple About Web 2.0 Tools for Sci­ence” (fea­tur­ing Tim O’Reilly, Esther Dyson & Anne Woj­ci­cki, Chris Ander­son, Barend Mons, and Vic­to­ria Stod­den).

And I missed Carl again, for the last ses­sion of the week­end, when he talked about his fly­ing car, because I wanted to see Brother Guy Con­sol­magno explain why the Pope has an astronomer (and a mete­orite col­lec­tion!).

I really should’ve been at “Trans­form­ing Edu­ca­tion – Mak­ing Sci­ence Fun and Rel­e­vant for Kids and Stu­dents,” but I wanted to hear Aubrey de Grey, Chris Patil, and Attila Csor­das talk about Aging and Life Exten­sion.

After a fas­ci­nat­ing chat Sat­ur­day morn­ing with Eric Wasser­mann on the 15-minute shut­tle ride from the hotel to the Google­plex (about the expe­ri­ence of spir­i­tu­al­ity and the illu­sion of con­scious­ness), I would’ve loved to have sat in on his ses­sion a few hours later about the ethics and impli­ca­tions of brain enhance­ment. But I also wanted to con­tribute to “Seduc­ing the Pub­lic with Sci­ence” (ini­ti­ated – on the wiki – by John Gilbey and Jenny Rohn – and includ­ing Tim O’Reilly,Seducing the Public - Tim O'Reilly, Marc Hodosh, Kevin Grazier, et al Ann Druyan, Marc Hodosh, Ben Goldacre, Euge­nie Scott and oth­ers). And, at the exact same time, I was miss­ing NASA Ames Direc­tor Pete Wor­den’s ses­sion on Set­tling Mars, and “LHC: The Uni­verse and All That” with Brian Cox, Max Tegmark, Mar­tin Rees, and Betsy’s hus­band, Nobel Lau­re­ate Frank Wilczek!

Impos­si­ble choices that have to be made!

I missed Paul Stamets’ ses­sion on How Fungi Can Save the World, as well as Paul Davies’ ses­sion on Mul­ti­ple Ori­gins of Life and a “Shadow Bios­phere” on Earth, and ses­sions on the World­Wide Tele­scope and brain read­ing neu­ral pros­thet­ics, the future of quan­tum com­put­ing, 23andMe, build­ing bet­ter cli­mate mod­els, and sev­eral more – all in the Sat­ur­day 4pm time slot – because I wanted to sit in on a ses­sion with Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, and Gar­rett Lisi called “Incu­bat­ing Adven­tur­ous Sci­ence and the FQXi.”

It wasn’t until Sun­day morn­ing, when I got into a great con­ver­sa­tion with the won­der­ful Dan Janzen about cater­pil­lars and moths, that I real­ized I shouldn’t have missed his pre­sen­ta­tion the day before on DNA bar­cod­ing the world’s species – all 10,000,000 of them.

But what could I do?  I was up to my ears in dark mat­ter – pick­ing the brain of Patri­cia Bur­chat, head of the Physics depart­ment at Stan­ford, who helped me finally under­stand how we could know – from our nar­row van­tage point – that the expan­sion rate of the Uni­verse has increased.

I could go on. And on. Expand­ing like the Uni­verse. And that’s what the week­end was really about.

Look­ing over the list of campers, I fig­ure I had sub­stan­tial, inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions with at least 50 dif­fer­ent peo­ple, on prob­a­bly 50 dif­fer­ent top­ics – plus, I attended about a dozen ses­sions, ask­ing ques­tions or con­tribut­ing com­ments dur­ing quite a few.

And I enter­tained per­haps the smartest crowd I’ve ever played with 45 min­utes of sci­ence humor at my own sur­pris­ingly well-attended ses­sion, Sat­ur­day night after din­ner (while, just down the hall, Mar­tin Rees and Nick Bostrom led a somber dis­cus­sion called “Exis­ten­tial Risks & Global Cat­a­strophic Risks.”)

There was some­thing for every­one.

In the end, there were some peo­ple – like Jim Hardy and Chris Patil and Brian Cox and his wife Gia Mili­novich and John Gilbey and Nick Bostrom and David Bauer and Lars Jeppe­sen and Simon Quel­len Field – with whom I had mul­ti­ple chances to chat. And, yet, there are scores of peo­ple I never met. I had no idea (until I was back home in San Fran­cisco) that there were four Nobel Lau­re­ates among us; I met only one. On the final day there were some faces that didn’t even look famil­iar to me… had they really been here all week­end?

[more to come]

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 0

This is a hel­luva week. I’ve been pro­mot­ing and prepar­ing for my upcom­ing sci­ence com­edy show at the San Fran­cisco Punch Line: Ratio­nal Com­edy for an Irra­tional Planet, Mon­day, August 11, 8pm, please come.

But between now and Mon­day I have what promises to be one of the most mem­o­rable week­ends of my life…

Fri­day through Sun­day, I’ll be attend­ing Sci­ence Foo Camp 2008 (“Sci­Foo”).

What is Sci­Foo, you ask?

Well, it’s an invitation-only gath­er­ing orga­nized by Nature, O’Reilly Media, and Google, and hosted at the famed Google­plex in Moun­tain View, CA.

It’s a week­end of inter­ac­tive ses­sions. All del­e­gates are also pre­sen­ters. There’s no agenda until we get there and then it is deter­mined col­lab­o­ra­tively and sub­ject to change through­out the week­end.

And who was invited?

Read the rest of this entry »